And so we gather. We are all here because we have taken that first important decision to count ourselves in; "Count me in". We want to be part of the action. And we gather out of a need for strength, solidarity and even protection, which the church community has traditionally provided. So the gathering is a very important element of the service. It is the springboard, launching us into the liturgy. It sets the scene and makes sense of what follows. We embark on a journey together.
It's good to start with a procession, as we always do (at the Parish Eucharist). The minister(s) deliberately come through the congregation, symbolically taking everyone into the sanctuary, and also reminding us that all of us here, robed though we might be for aesthetic reasons, are drawn from the congregation. Traditionally a cross leads the procession, keeping ever before us the central fact of the Christian faith, that Jesus died on a cross and was raised again.
The other item carried in the procession is the Book of Gospels. Carried aloft through the church, this spends the first half of the service on the altar except when it is read from. This, therefore, is the focus for the first part of the liturgy, before the bread and wine replace it at the offertory.
Once we have all taken our places the president begins the assembly. We say 'President' rather than 'Celebrant' these days because we regard everyone in church as celebrants. The priest standing at the front is presiding over a Eucharist that everyone is celebrating.
We start with the president greeting the congregation; "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ . . ." That opening dialogue officially opens the assembly, calls the meeting to order, if you like. The president usually says a few words about the theme or content of the day's liturgy.
And then immediately we confess our sins. This is a corporate prayer showing that we share in the sin and selfishness of the human race; we're all in it together. Confession is part of most church services, because it is always right to acknowledge our frailty before God before going on to sing our praises. Our thanks and praise spring from the fact that we are forgiven and restored people. Now, this prayer is much more meaningful if we have some sins to confess; we're not just confessing the sins of the human race, but our part in them. But are our faults and failings in our minds as we say that prayer? It is a good idea to think about one or two particular things you have done wrong in the past week, things that you feel guilty about or ashamed of, and bring them to mind during the confession.
After the confession, the president declares God's forgiveness of our sins and that leads into an appropriate response. In Lent and Advent, when the emphasis is on penitence and preparation, the response is the Kyrie, a simple ancient chant - Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. At all other times of the year we burst into song, using a hymn of praise that goes back to the 4th century, the Gloria. The opening words are based on the angels' greeting to the shepherds at Christmas, and the rest of it praises Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Holy One, the Lord.
At the end of this the MC brings a book to the president so he or she can extend hands in prayer to say the Collect. This is, if you like the climax and conclusion of the Gathering. It's introduced by the words, "Let us pray", and we've all learned by now that doesn't mean "Let us kneel". The president then leaves a short period of silence for to people to pray, then says the prayer which "collects" those prayers and offers them to God. Usually the collect reflects the theme of the day, or the Church's year. It always ends in a doxology, "who lives and reigns . . . glory of God the Father" etc, which makes a fitting conclusion to this part of the liturgy.
Then we all sit, and the focus changes to listening to holy scripture, which is explained in the next section, Word.
You'll notice that we are standing for the duration of the Gathering, because standing is the posture to emphasise corporate activity.
Now there are various things we might gather from that:
One is that the building itself should facilitate gathering. The exterior should be attractive, with no hindrances to getting in. Everything should proclaim "Come on in". I rather envy new churches which have been able to have glazed front doors, so that even when the building is shut you can still get a glimpse of a warm and attractive interior. It was a great breakthrough 10 years ago when we introduced a glazed inner door. I wonder if it would be feasible to replace our solid wooden doors with glazed ones? Done well, it would be stunning. Not only should the building be welcoming, of course, but so should the people. And we have worked to get that right.
Another is the thought that, if the president's greeting at the start of the liturgy is the calling together of the assembly, and sets the scene, do we really need the greeting we have before the service starts every Sunday? It almost looks as if we're starting twice over, and arguably detracts from the real opening of the assembly.
And what if you miss the Gathering part of the service? I mean, if you arrive late. Well, imagine arriving late at the theatre, or the cinema? It's difficult to catch up with the plot. Suppose you arrive late at the station; you miss the train. If you miss the Gathering, you don't pick up those clues about what is happening in that Eucharist. You haven't confessed your sins with everyone else. You don't have the springboard to launch you into the liturgy. You are not embarking on a journey through the liturgy with everyone else. So let's be sure to be here at the start, to count ourselves in with everyone else.
Let's take Gathering for the Eucharist seriously. It's not easy for some, and others arrive unprepared. But it's important to get it right, for in those few minutes a random collection of individuals becomes an assembly, settled and attentive, focussed on the weekly Eucharist, and ready to meet Christ in word, in sacrament and in one another.
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Illustration: Jesus Among the Doctors in the Temple 1558, Paulo Veronese (Caliari)
"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ . . ."
"Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy"
Call the vicar, Ref Michael Kingston 020 8778 5290